Lawsuit alleges waterboarding, sexual harassment, hazing at Virginia Military Institute

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LEXINGTON, Va. (WFXR) — A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke alleges hazing, waterboarding, and sexual harassment at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington.

The lawsuit was filed in the name of a John Doe on Jan. 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Defendants include the VMI Board of Visitors, VMI Superintendent Bindford Peay III, VMI Commandant of Cadets William J. Wanovich, and five cadets WFXR News is not naming at this time.

In the lawsuit, John Doe claims as a first-year cadet in 2018 that he was the victim of hazing which included waterboarding, sexual assault, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In a telephone interview with WFXRtv.com, VMI Director of Media Relations Col. Stewart MacInnis denied the allegations.

“VMI has not abridged anybody’s rights,” he said. “We will defend the Institute very strenuously in court.”

In the lawsuit, plaintiff John Doe’s attorney said that first year cadets are called “Rats” and “must endure seven months of harsh and demeaning treatment by upperclassmen in a boot-camp-like initiation program called the ‘Rat Line,’ which is executed by members of the cadet-cadre under the military direction and discipline of the Superintendent of Cadets.”

Among numerous claims of hazing, assault, and torture, John Doe’s lawsuit also identifies a John Doe 2 whose mattress was taken as part of a “Rat Mission” on Jan. 30, 2018. An upperclassman allegedly took the mattress to another upperclassman’s barracks room, where the lawsuit claims John Doe 2 was assaulted when he attempted to retrieve the mattress around 11 p.m. He was ordered the leave the room without the mattress, the suit said.

Later that evening, between midnight and 1 a.m., the suit says John Doe 2 and John Doe returned to the room, where John Doe 2 went into the darkened room to retrieve the mattress. John Doe 2 was allegedly wrestled “into submission” and his feet bound with duct tape by two upper class cadets. One of the upperclassmen then allegedly ordered John Doe to enter the room.

The suit contends that one of the cadets assaulted John Doe and “bound his upper body with a strap and bound his feet with duct tape so, like John Doe 2, he could not escape.” The two were eventually ordered to lay on their backs and subsequently waterboarded, John Doe claims.

After the two Defendants finished waterboarding John Doe 2, John Doe was taken to the front of the room, ordered to lay down on his back, at which point Defendant [name redacted by WFXR News] placed a towel over his face. Defendant [name redacted by WFXR News] pushed the towel partially into John Doe’s mouth and the two Defendant Cadets proceeded to waterboard him—pouring two cups of water over his mouth as he gasped for air. As a result of this assault, John Doe suffered both physical and emotional injuries.

Lawsuit filed by John Doe against the Virginia Military Institute

Other incidents claimed in John Doe’s lawsuit include:

• A male cadet was tied to a chair and beaten by upper-class cadets with socks that contained bars of soap;
• A male cadet was ordered to defecate in another cadet’s container of protein supplement;
• Male cadets were ordered to workout in upper-class cadet’s barracks rooms, while chewing tobacco or with a full mouth of water, with the intended purpose that the male cadets would only be able to breathe through their mouths; and
• During a training session, a male cadet was ordered to stay on the pullup bar, despite his complaints that he was about to vomit, resulting in him vomiting on himself.

Lawsuit filed by John Doe against the Virginia Military Institute

Examples of sexual harassment of male cadets were also included in the lawsuit.

• An upper-class cadet ordered a male cadet to pick his favorite porn star and give a PowerPoint presentation about that porn star to a room full of female cadets;
• An upper-class cadet ordered a male cadet to wear woman’s leopard-print underwear for an entire week without changing or cleaning the underwear;
• An upper-class cadet ordered a male cadet to strip down to his underwear and execute a “Rat Mission” outdoors in the plain view of other cadets.

Lawsuit filed by John Doe against the Virginia Military Institute

The lawsuit goes on to say that the institution “has a custom and practice of treating the hazing of male cadets with deliberate indifference, because of long-held and outdated gender stereotypes about young men.”

A 2014 investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is referenced in John Doe’s lawsuit. In the OCR report, it was determined that VMI was in violation of Title IX and “failed to respond in a prompt and equitable manner to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault of which it had notice and that this failure permitted a sexually hostile environment to exist for cadets that was sufficiently serious to deny or limit their ability to participate in VMI’s program.”

John Doe alleges female cadets are “largely immune” from hazing at the school since VMI entered into the resolution agreement with the OCR, but contends male cadets are subjected to “systemic acts of hazing and abuse, to include sexual assault and sexual harassment, at the hands of more senior cadets, because those acts are part of the VMI tradition — the very fabric of the Institute.”

MacInnis said policies are in place at VMI to address hazing.

“VMI has robust policies concerning such issues as hazing and sexual misconduct. Those policies are the basis of training that all cadets get and that training informs them how to report these immediately. VMI takes action immediately when we understand that there’s an allegation that needs to be addressed.”

View the complete lawsuit here.

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